Thursday, February 01, 2001

Poet's history joins her present and her future


Ancestors' stories give sense of self

By Cindy Kranz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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        When Pamela Rhodes Myricks wakes up each day, she is surrounded by history.

        She sleeps in her grandmother's bed, wears her grandmother's engagement ring on her right hand and makes breakfast on her grandmother's gas stove.

        “Everything reminds me of her,” said the 45-year-old Clifton poet, who has seamlessly integrated her past into her present and future.

        Her history defines her and influences everything she does, whether it's writing or setting the table with cloth napkins or making applesauce from scratch — just like her paternal grandmother did.

[photo] Pamela Rhodes Myricks holds a photo of her grandmother, Ella Mae Rhodes.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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        Today marks the beginning of Black History Month, a time when cultural institutions and schools illuminate the black experience. Mrs. Myricks is not a school teacher, but a teacher of black history, nonetheless.

        Through her poetry and family history presentations, Mrs. Myricks emphasizes the importance of knowing about your ancestors. For her, completed genealogical charts are not enough.

        “What's important to me is all the stories and how it influences me as a person,” she said.

        It's only when you know the stories of your ancestors that one can gain a sense of self, she said. Their hard ships and triumphs can inspire you to set goals, overcome obstacles, take risks

        and live your dream — something Mrs. Myricks decided to do when she quit a full-time job in 1999 to write.

        Whenever someone warns her that she will never be able to accomplish a goal because of racism, she reminds herself that if her ancestors could overcome obstacles under much harsher conditions, surely she can, too.
       

Ancestors were slaves

        Although her great-great-grandparents were slaves, Mrs. Myricks' ancestors overcame odds to settle comfortably into a middle-class lifestyle. Her great-grandparents had four girls graduate from college in the 1920s. One of those was her grandmother, Ella Mae Rhodes, a teacher. Mrs. Rhodes lived with Mrs. Myricks and her husband, Lennell, from 1983 until 1996, when she died at age 94.

        Mrs. Myricks grew up in North Avondale listening to stories about life in Newport, R.I., where her grandmother lived before moving to Cincinnati. In 1923, her grandmother was hired to teach in public schools here. But when she arrived, she was told she couldn't have the job. She was colored. No one expected that a resume like hers belonged to a colored woman.

        But, she prevailed and taught at the Harriet Beecher Stowe School in the West End, where she met another teacher and her future husband, Silas Rhodes. She taught 46 years in Cincinnati Public Schools.

        As a child, Mrs. Myricks spent weekends with her grandmother, who followed etiquette to the letter, teaching her to speak correct English and set a table with cloth napkins.

        “I feel my grandmother not only gave me a sense of history, but a sense of individuality,” she said. “That sense of individuality made me a strong person able to accomplish my goals.”

        Because of her grandmother, Mrs. Myricks was exposed to a diverse lifestyle that distanced her from her friends. As teen-agers in the 1970s, they thought it was strange she hung out with her grandmother.

        “I like all music. I love jazz. I love classical. A lot of my friends didn't understand that. They thought I wasn't being true to my culture. In my opinion, I am, because all of these things are things my grandmother taught me.”

        People teased her — then and now — about speaking “white.”

        “It has nothing to do with being black or white. I was brought up to use standard English at all times.”

        Poetry is her outlet for speaking her mind. “A lot of (her writing) is about things that bother me,” she said. “I like to turn it around into something positive.”

        Her eyes and her voice dance as she recites “Am I Black Enough?”, a response to those who question her commitment to her culture. What they don't understand is she was shaped by her ancestors and their experiences.

        “That history ... gives me strength.”

        It's the same strength she drew on to quit her full-time job at Ohio Valley Residential Services, where she worked first as a group home coordinator and then training coordinator. She worked with adults with mental disabilities for 22 years. But writing was her passion.
       

A published poet

        Mrs. Myricks began writing poetry in 1997 and has work published in the University of Cincinnati's Creative Voices and The Longfellow Society Journal, published by an invitation-only writers' group inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. She never intended to write poetry. Her goal has always been to write her grandmother's story.

        In 1999, she pitched a book about her ancestors to Random House. To her dismay, she was told the publisher wanted stories about black men in prison and black women in failed relationships. Her story didn't fit that mold.

        Undeterred, she continued giving family history presentations. Her first one in February 1999 at the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County was so popular that she now travels to libraries and schools throughout the Tristate.

        Later that year, she met Brian Joiner, an African-American artist from Hartwell, at an art show opening. The two now collaborate on several projects. He paints pictures, and she complements them with poems or “word art.”

        They are kindred spirits. Like Mrs. Myricks, Mr. Joiner left a full-time job and plunged into what he loved best — art.

        Her biggest challenge now is their “Forged Souls, Weathered Soles” project, a series of paintings and poems depicting the Middle Passage, slavery and the route to freedom. The project debuts in 2004 before the Underground Railroad Freedom Center opens.

        In this project, she's showing her sensual side with hints of eroticism in her poetry.

        “People think I'm square because I wear long dresses, use correct English and cook from scratch,” Mrs. Myricks said with a playful smile.

        “I'm really getting a kick out of showing the side of me that shocks people. I've always been like that. They just didn't want to look past the clothing and the homemade applesauce.”

       



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